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Getting UNIX Out the Microsoft Door
UNIX developers talk about crossing Microsoft's final frontier

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy working for Microsoft. But, at first glance, UNIX developers Randy Chapman and David Dawson might have seemed to face even more than the usual challenges. First, their team was charged with the daunting task, and this was not even a year ago, of producing a version of Internet Explorer 4.0 that would run on a UNIX operating system, which is actually an entire rainbow assortment of operating systems, including Solaris and HP-UX among many others.

David Dawson, the first UNIX developer hired by Microsoft to work on Internet Explorer 4.0.
David Dawson helped bring Internet Explorer 4.0 to UNIX
Second, there was the inevitable concern that they might come to be treated as strangers in a strange land, crossing the industry equivalent of the Atlantic Ocean from the Old World command-line traditions of UNIX to the GUI New World of Windows, confronted by a host of strange new priorities: intuitiveness, discoverability, usability.

For those who won't do Windows
David Dawson was the first developer hired and dedicated to creating the Internet Explorer 4.0 browser for UNIX. His experience with UNIX-like environments stemmed from his background working on MACH-based supercomputers, and though he is now a Windows convert he certainly understands the appeal of the UNIX operating system. "The things people like about UNIX are more things that appeal to programmers, in terms of the programming environment," he explains.

Randy Chapman: dedicated follower of Linux.
Randy Chapman, a dedicated follower of Linux
Randy Chapman, on the other hand, has made the Linux flavor of UNIX his preferred platform for many years, dating back to 1993. Of the two, Chapman probably has the most genuinely enduring affection for UNIX; he keeps Linux on one of his secondary machines at home. He even remembers downloading his first Linux over a 2400-baud modem, adding, "I switched to a 14.4 modem shortly after that."

Get this done yesterday
Dawson, in fact, was far more concerned with the aggressive schedule presented to him than with any of the friction that might be found between UNIX and Windows users. "I've never done anything like it before, in terms of being on such a fast track," he says. "The project was behind from the beginning. And in our case just delivering a product was not going to be enough. We had to deliver a great product to get past all of the history of the early difficulties, one that could overcome the expectations of a doubtful UNIX community."

"It was very evident to me that this project got a lot of support from the company," Chapman says. "It was much easier in terms of getting support than anything I've ever done. We were always taken seriously when we had problems. It's certainly been the most enjoyable job I've had professionally."

Why all the urgency? Because the release of Internet Explorer 4.0 for UNIX has been one of the longest anticipated flanking operations in the ongoing browser wars of the past few years between Microsoft and Netscape. With the release of this product, Microsoft is in a vastly better position to serve the needs of many of their users with this new level of cross-platform support. No one has argued that Internet Explorer 4.0 isn't the superior browser for the Windows family of operating systems. With the release of a 4.0 version for Macintosh at the beginning of the year that left only one significant operating system niche: UNIX.

Compounding the urgency was the fact that a version of Internet Explorer 3.0 for UNIX had been developed almost to the point where it was ready for release. But it had not been developed fast enough or well enough.

"We had most of it ready for 3.0," Chapman remembers. "Then we pretty much started working on 4.0 last April, of '97. I think the hope was that we would be able to match the release date of the Windows 95 release. Now we're working on a version of 4.0 for HP and then we're on to Internet Explorer 5.0, once again trying to ship as close to Windows as we can."

Closet UNIXphiles in Redmond?
Dawson smiles, thinking of his initial expectations and preconceptions when he came to this job. "I think a lot of people don't realize how many Microsoft people started out working on UNIX, even if it was just at college," he says. "It's almost a nostalgia trip for many."

Chapman agrees with Dawson that one of the best-kept secrets here at the home of DOS and Windows is the widespread use of UNIX by a variety of developers in a variety of circumstances. "There are definitely a lot of people here who use Linux," Chapman says flatly. "It's used for compatibility testing, and of course it's the best way to approach UNIX-based solutions and problems.

"It was weird," he remembers of his transition to Microsoft. "After being fairly active in the Linux community, and fairly well-known, there were a lot of people who were surprised that I would 'come over to the dark side.' But in terms of the people here it's never been anything less than wonderful. I've never felt any bias. People here are always very helpful."

And the fact is that both Chapman and Dawson have grown quite comfortable shuttling back and forth between the worlds of Windows and UNIX. "It's amazing to me how far UNIX has to go today to catch up to NT," says Dawson. "Take, just for one example, threading support. UNIX still has benefits, but NT is just a lot more full-featured."

Both are equally enthusiastic about the quality of the product they created as well. "Ours is every bit as good, if not better, than the competition," Chapman says. Dawson adds, "Netscape in UNIX doesn't even support standards-based DHTML. We've come a long way in a fairly short time."



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Last updated: Monday, February 16, 1998
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